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Justin Webb: Cow Tools

Columns By Justin Webb on January 12, 2010

Cow Tools

During a design meeting this week I was forced to make the following reply: "Nope. That's 'Cow Tools'." There were a couple of blank stares in the room, mostly from the new guys. I often forget that not everyone knows about Cow Tools, or my propensity for using obscure pop-culture references as examples, so I had to explain. I'll do so again here. Here goes ...

In 1982, Gary Larson drew a Far Side cartoon called Cow Tools. It features a cow standing behind a table. On the table are four objects: two blob-like things, a weird stick, and something that looks remarkably like a saw. In the background is an American-style farm barn. It's kind of like American Gothic, but with a cow. The caption reads "Cow Tools". I'd love to link it here, but Larson is well known for keeping his Far Side cartoons off the internet. However, there are copies of Cow Tools out there if your Google-Fu is strong.


Larson has said that the inspiration behind the cartoon was hearing the statement in college that man could be defined as "the only animal that made and shaped tools". Having a weird fascination with cows, he later wondered what kind of tools a cow would make, and came up with the published cartoon. Larson has also said that his first mistake with Cow Tools was thinking that it was funny. The second was that he made one of the tools look like a hand saw.

People lost their minds ... well as much as you can lose your mind over a cartoon. Larson's publisher was inundated with requests about the cartoon. What did it "mean"? Why would a cow make a saw? What's the saw for? What are the other tools for? What kind of political statement was Larson trying to make with Cow Tools? etc. People formed organizations to discuss Cow Tools. Ultimately, the press surrounding Cow Tools turned Larson from a semi-struggling cartoonist into a massively syndicated brand. Good for him.

So, what does Cow Tools have to do with game design?

My take is that developers need to be very careful when putting something into a game that looks like it does something specific. If the "thing" ends up not doing the specific action, people can get confused, frustrated, and often angry.

For example, whenever you start a new game, you have to learn what the door rules are. It's really hard to create buildings with nice-looking exteriors and functional interiors, so in most games, there are an awful lot of fake doors, ones that are baked into the textures and which can't be opened. Sometimes, there are real doors, which can be opened. Hopefully, the game helps players out by making the real doors look different to the fake ones. Regardless, when you begin a game you have to learn what the visual cues are for the game's interactable objects.

An easy way to manifest Cow Tools is to have two identical-looking doors, and have one be real and one be fake. Doors are powerful concepts. They are metaphors for all kinds of crazy things. And players love opening them and seeing what's inside. It drives me crazy when a game has Cow-Tool doors. Abso-flipping mental.

Consistency is the key. Of course, Cow Tools doesn't just apply to doors. If there's a particular world object in the game that the player can interact with (for example, a telescope, a cannon, an arcade game, etc.), you had better make damn sure that every single instance of that object in the game is interactable. Otherwise you get Cow Tools. People really like interacting with things in games. Don't tease them.

As an example, if you have a telescope in your starter area that I can look through, if I can't look through every other telescope in the game, I'm going to be pissed. It'll make me wonder what other shortcuts you made during crunch time.

Cow Tools is almost exactly the same as something I like to call the "Wizard Paradigm", which is essentially "if there's a dude in the game with a long beard, a pointy hat, robes, and a staff, he had better be a wizard". The Wizard Paradigm is a warning about mismanaging the player's aesthetic and visual expectations. Obviously, you can play and experiment with the visual motifs of a genre when developing the look of an MMO, but (again), care should be taken and any radical changes should be signposted early and clearly. Rule of Thumb: Wherever possible, things should look like what they are.

For example, when I fight a dude in a plate-mail tin can carrying a sword 'n' board for the first time, I'm not expecting him to be the best wizard in the game.

Sometimes Cow Tools create really interesting emergent gameplay. However, these occurrences are few and far between. Generally, Cow Tools is bad. The only benign Cow Tools example I can remember is the Diablo II gem. If you clicked on the gem that was built into the game's chat-channel UI, it would say "gem activated" and change color. If you clicked on it again, it would say "gem deactivated" and change back. The game didn't tell you what activating the gem did, if anything. Even more devious was the potential to get a "perfect gem activated" result. There was massive interest among Diablo 2 players regarding the gem. Some got really confused and frustrated. Some others claimed that the perfect activation came once every 100 clicks, others claimed that the gem sometime also "mooed". Part of me hopes that this is true and is an actual homage to Cow Tools. That would make me warm inside.

The gem is bearable because it doesn't impact the game experience in any way - it's just something weird that happens in a lobby. Try something like this in the game world itself and watch your forums explode.

Cow Tools can bite you in the ass accidentally, especially if you are having to manage scope toward the end of a project. Often, there are a bunch of awesome cool little whimsical features that, if implemented, will create glory and make your game feel more immersive and more of a virtual world. Sadly, these small features are often the first to get cut. Conversely, sometimes you have a really awesome feature, but there is just not enough time to implement it across all 100% of content. Both of these examples can manifest Cow Tools. Accidental Cow Tools really sucks.

At the end of the day, knowing that Cow Tools exist and how to avoid them might help you out of a potentially embarrassing design situation. But then again, it might not.

The moral of the story is: "It can all be avoided as long as it doesn't look like a saw".